Last weekend, I had the joy of seeing members of the Norwich Stonemasons‘ Guild perform a Mystery Play outside the doors of the Cathedral. It was a warm, sunny afternoon, a brief summer interlude before putting our coats, scarves and gloves back on in time for June. The first Mystery Play to be acted by a Norwich guild for five hundred years – Cain & Abel.
As an eager crowd gathered outside the Mediaeval Benedictine cathedral, the Beadle of the Guild, in his black velvet cap and cloak, and gold-tipped staff, announced, in imperative tones, “You will enjoy it. You will laugh,” triggering the first giggles among the willing audience.
I couldn’t begin to describe the sheer delight and fun of this ten-minute performance. I couldn’t do justice to its highly imaginative props, to the brightly-coloured, makeshift set, to the hysterically funny performance by the actors, who, fuelled by the audience’s laughter, gave into corpsing themselves, thereby increasing the overall giggling. There was something so earthy about the whole event, so uniting. Inevitably, I thought of the Mechanicals of Athens performing Pyramus and Thisbe. An unwitting trigger to laughter was also the organ player in the Cathedral, where that evening’s concert was being rehearsed, whose notes from Fauré’s Requiem thundered through the stone walls at a couple of appropriate Biblical moments.
At the end of the performance, after the cheers and bows, the Clerk came on and spoke of the history of this Guild, and repeated the last line of the performance, “Perfection in an imperfect world.” Summa Inter Mediocria, the St Stephen and St George’s Guild motto.
These words sent a tingle up my spine. I often walk past the Church of St Clement, and catch a glimpse of the stonemasons at work, complete with their square white caps. Everything about their body language and that of the Master Stonemason who supervises them oozes something we seldom see nowadays: fierce pride in one’s work. A refusal to produce anything less than as perfect a job as any human can aspire to.
Over the days that followed, I pondered over something that has been much on my mind, recently. Job titles. Pride in one’s job. A sense of achievement when performing a task. The refusal to compromise quality and “make do”.
Stonemason. Baker. Translator. Writer. Carpenter. Lawyer. Priest. Journalist. Teacher. Actor. The words immediately tells me clearly what the jobs entail. It took me ages to work out what a CEO did. Chief Executive Officer. What’s that? What’s wrong with “boss”? Or MD. Managing Director. What is “manage”, exactly? Is it to regulate? To direct? To organise? When I taught Business English, the majority of my clients’ job titles weren’t words but abbreviations. I often had to ask them what they did exactly and, in most cases, still couldn’t put my finger on what precisely their professions involved. After many a lengthy explanation, I frequently yearned to ask “What do you actually make? What is the tangible, physical result of your work?”
I once worked for an oil company for two months. The second month was to work out my notice. My job title was also an abbreviation. Much of it seemed to involve entering long serial numbers into a computer. I wasn’t quite sure why. One day, when one of the top honchos of the company circulated through our department, shaking everyone’s hand, and asking what they did, I embarrassed myself. His question suddenly stumped me and I replied, “I don’t know. I’m not really sure what I do.” He laughed politely, probably assuming I was joking, but I was totally serious. Inappropriate for the occasion, but serious. I had no idea what I actually did. I couldn’t be proud of a job I didn’t understand.
Recently, at the London Book Fair, I asked a woman if she was a publisher. She replied, “No. I facilitate publishing.”
I stared, totally at a loss. What’s “facilitating publishing” when it’s at home?
In one of the very executive London language schools I used to teach (“executive” – another hermetic word for me – executing what?), we weren’t called teachers but “trainers”. I wondered if the management considered the word “teacher” to be too authoritative, too passé, or – what the heck – too politically incorrect. Similarly, students were referred to as “course participants”. I went around feeling like a rubber sports shoe, facilitating learning rather than teaching – which is what I’d signed up to do when I qualified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (there, the word is “teaching”!). As for “course participants” as opposed to “students”, the difference in connotation made me somewhat uncomfortable, the latter suggesting in my mind individuals who were simply required to attend my classes and not necessarily learn from them.
Other job titles that have recently puzzled me are “Community Banker” referring to the advisors/clerks at my local bank, “Presentation Team” printed on the uniforms of cleaners, and anything with the nouns “Consultant”, “Executive”, “Corporate” and “Officer” (outside the military) attached.
Stonemason. Baker. Translator. Writer. Carpenter. Lawyer. Priest. Journalist. Teacher. Actor. These I understand. But perhaps I’m too simple-minded.